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The Sea Post by :ApplePoly Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :October 2011 Read :3638

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The Sea

It is only now and then, when some great disaster like the sinking of the Empress of Ireland occurs, that man recovers his ancient dread of the sea. We have grown comfortably intimate with the sea. We use it as a highway of business and pleasure with as little hesitation as the land. The worst we fear from it is the discomfort of sea-sickness, and we are inclined to treat that half-comically, like a boy's sickness from tobacco. There are still a few persons who are timid of it, as the more civilised among us are timid of forests: they cannot sleep if they are near its dull roar, and they hate, like nagging, the damnable iteration of its waves. For most of us, however, the sea is a domesticated wonder. We pace its shores with as little nervousness as we walk past the bears and lions in the Zoological Gardens. With less nervousness, indeed, for we trust our bodies to the sea in little scoops of wood, and even fling ourselves half-naked into its waters as a luxury--an indulgence bolder than any we allow ourselves with the tamest lions. Let an accident occur, however--let a ship go down or a bather be carried out in the wash of the tide--and something in our bones remembers the old fears of the monster in the waters. We realise suddenly that we who trust the sea are like the people in other lands who live under the fiery mountains that have poured death on their ancestors time and again. We are amazed at the faith of men who rebuild their homes under a volcano, but the sea over which we pass with so smiling a certainty is more restless than a volcano and more clamorous for victims. Originally, man seems to have dreaded all water, whether of springs or of rivers or of the sea, in the idea that it was a dragon's pasture. There is no myth more universal than that of the beast that rises up out of the water and demands as tribute the fairest woman of the earth. Perseus rescued Andromeda from such a monster as this, and it is as the slayer of a water beast that St. George lives in legend, however history may seek to degrade him into a dishonest meat contractor. Not that it was always a maiden who was sacrificed. Probably in the beginning the sea-beast made no distinction of sex among its victims. In many of the legends, we find it claiming men and women indifferently. In the story of Jonah, it demands a male victim, and in many countries to-day there are men who will not rescue anyone from drowning on the ground that if you disappoint the sea of one victim it will sooner or later have you, whether you are male or female, for your pains. These men regard the sea as some men regard God--a beneficent being, if you get on the right side of it. They see it as the home of one who is half-divinity and half-monster, and who, when once his passion for sacrifice has been satisfied, will look on you with a shining face. Hence all these gifts to it of handsome youths and well-born children. Hence the marriage to it of soothing maidens. In the latter case, no doubt, there is also the idea of a magical marriage, which will promote the fertility of water and land. Matthew Arnold's Forsaken Merman, if you let the anthropologists get hold of it, will be shown to be but the exquisite echo of some forgotten marriage of the sea.

These superstitions may reasonably enough be considered as for the most part dramatisations of a sense of the sea's insecurity. We have ceased to believe in dragons and mermaids, chiefly because civilisation has built up for us a false sense of security, and you can arrange in any of Cook's branch offices to spend your week-end silent upon a peak in Darien, commanding the best views of the Pacific. We have, as it were, advertised the sea till it seems as innocuous as a patent medicine. We no more expect to be injured by it than to be poisoned at our meals. We have lost both our fears and our wonders, and as we glide through the miraculous places of Ocean we no longer listen for the song of the Sirens, but sit down comfortably to read the latest issue of the Continental edition of the Daily Mail. It is a question whether we have lost or gained more by our podgy indifference. Sometimes it seems as if there were a sentence of "Thou fool" hanging over us as we lounge in our deck-chairs. In any case the men who were troubled by the fancy of Scylla and Charybdis, and were conscious of the nearness of Leviathan, and saw without surprise the rising of islands of doom in the sunset went out none the less high-heartedly for their fears. We are sometimes inclined to think that no one ever quite enjoyed the wonders of the sea before the nineteenth century. We have been brought up to believe that all the ancients regarded the sea, with Horace, as the sailor's grave and that that was the end of their emotions concerning it. Even in the eighteenth century, it has been dinned into us, men took so little impartial pleasure in the sea that a novel like Roderick Random, though full of nautical adventures, does not contain three sentences in praise of its beauty. This has always seemed to me to be great nonsense. No doubt, men were not so much at their ease with the sea in the old days as they are now. But be sure the terrors of the sea did not stun the ancients into indifference to its beauty any more than the terrors of tragedy stupefy you or me into insensitiveness. There is a sense of all the magnificence of the sea in the cry of Jonah:

All thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight;...
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
The depth closed me round about,
The weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains.

There is perhaps more of awe than of the pleasure of the senses in this. It has certainly nothing of the "Oh, for the life of the sailor-lad" jollity of the ballad-concert. But, then, not even the most enthusiastic sea-literature of this sea-ridden time has. Mr Conrad, who has found in the sea a new fatherland--if the phrase is not too anomalous--never approaches it in that mood of flirtation that we get in music-hall songs. He is as conscious of its dreadful mysteries as the author of the Book of Jonah, and as aware of its terrors and portents as the mariners of the Odyssey. He discovers plenty of humour in the relations of human beings with the sea, but this humour is the merest peering of stars in a night of tragic irony. His ships crash through the tumult of the waves like creatures of doom, even when they triumph as they do under the guidance of the brave. His sea, too, is haunted by invisible terrors, where more ancient sailors dreaded marvels that had shape and bulk. Mr Masefield's love of the sea is to a still greater extent dominated by tragic shadows. There are few gloomier poems in literature than Dauber in spite of the philosophy and calm of its close. It is only young men who have never gone farther over the water than for a sail at Southend who think of the sea as consistently a merry place. Not that all sailors set out to sea in the mood of Hamlet. The praise of the sea life that we find in their chanties is the praise of cheerful men. But it is also the praise of men who recognise the risks and treacheries that lurk under the ocean--a place of perils as manifestly as any jungle in the literature of man's adventures and fears. Perhaps it is necessary that the average man should ignore this dreadful quality in the sea: it would otherwise interfere too much with the commerce and the gaiety of nations. And, after all, an ocean liner is from one point of view a retreat from the greater dangers of the streets of London. But the imaginative man cannot be content to regard the sea with this ignorant amiableness. To him every voyage must still be a voyage into the unknown "where tall ships founder and deep death waits." He is no more impudently at home with the sea than was Shakespeare, who, in "Full fathom five thy father lies," wrote the most imaginative poem of the sea in literature. Even Mr Kipling, who has slapped most of the old gods on the back and pressed penny Union Jacks into their hands, writes of the sea as a strange world of fearful things. When he makes the deep-sea cables sing their "song of the English," he aims at conveying the same sense of awe that we get when we read how Jonah went down in the belly of the great fish. Recall how the song of the deep-sea cables begins:

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar--
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Mr Kipling's particularisations of the "blind white sea-snakes" and "level plains of ooze" achieve nothing of the majesty of the far simpler "bottoms of the mountains" in the song of Jonah. But, when we get behind the more vulgar and prosaic phrasing, we see that the mood of Mr Kipling and the Hebrew author is essentially the same.

It is, nevertheless, man's constant dream that he will yet be able to defeat these terrors of the sea. He sees himself with elation as the conqueror of storms, and makes his plans to build a ship that no accident can sink either in a wild sea or a calm. Before the Titanic went down many people thought that the great discovery had been made. The Titanic went forth like a boast, and perished from one of the few accidents her builders had not provided against, like a victim of Nemesis in a Greek story. After that, we ceased to believe in the unsinkable ship; but we thought at least that, if only ships were furnished with enough boats to hold everyone on board, no ship would ever again sink on a calm night carrying over a thousand human beings to the bottom. Yet the Empress of Ireland had apparently boats enough to save every passenger, and now she has gone down with over a thousand dead in shallow water at the mouth of a river which, the Times insists, is at least as safe for navigation as the English Channel, and much safer than the Thames. It is as though the great machines we have invented were not machines of safety, but machines of destruction. They have us in their grip as we thought we had the sea in ours. They do but betray us, indeed, in a new manner into an ancient snare--the snare of a power that, like Leviathan,

Esteemeth iron as straw,
And brass as rotten wood.

We must, no doubt, go on dreaming that we shall master the sea, and that we shall do it with machines perfectly under our control. But, if we are wise, we shall dream humbly and put off boasting until we are dead and quite sure that the triumph has been ours. It would be inhuman, I admit, never to feel a thrill of satisfaction at man's plodding success in breaking the sea and the air to his uses, in the discovery of fire, in converting the lightning into an illumination for nurseries. But we still perish by fire and flood, by wind and lightning. We use them, but it is at our peril. It is as though we were favoured strangers in the elements, but assuredly we are not conquerors. Mr Wells in The World Set Free makes one of his characters in the pride of human invention shake his fist at the sun and cry out, "I'll have you yet." It would have seemed to the Greeks blasphemy, and it still seems folly for man, a hair-pin of flesh half-hidden in trousers, to talk so. There is no victory that man has yet been able to achieve over matter that he does not before long discover has merely delivered him into a new servitude.

(The end)
Robert Lynd's essay: Sea

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